Obama’s Base Problem

Brendon S. Peck holds a Master of Arts in History and Political science from the College of Saint Rose and has completed graduate work at Columbia University. He is a freelance writer. Reach him at bshawnp@gmail.com.


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In March 2009, just 3 months after Obama took office, liberal economist Paul Krugman claimed to be in “despair” over administration policy.  At this early stage, though, such a feeling was shared by few progressives.  Instead, in the “Age of Obama,” left-wing ascendency was expected.  And in the new president, they had found their champion.

Today, however, much has changed. Many leftists now doubt Obama’s fealty to their cause.  The “capitulation” to Republicans and the continuation of key Bush policies have even been characterized as treachery.  From their perspective, Obama’s ideological impurity and divergence from dogma is offensive.  The calls for a primary challenge are arguably an outgrowth of this.

Now, it is true that a serious challenge from the Left is unlikely and, therefore, it may be tempting to dismiss the discussion as ephemeral, even irrelevant.  That would be a mistake.  Its proponents include iconic liberal thinkers and academics like Gore Vidal and Cornell West.  Their involvement speaks to the high level of disillusionment felt among the very foot soldiers and activists Obama will need in 2012.  And many of them want to use the primary process to force Obama sharply leftward, lest progressivism be “betrayed” further.

Surely the committed Left’s frequent excoriation must trouble the White House. That their liberal constituency is decidedly more vocal in its criticism, its attacks more virulent and public, only undermines Obama’s fading re-election hopes.  Primary challenge or not, the president knows he can ill-afford a protracted fight with his base.  Not when his job approval suffers persistent erosion; not when the majority of voters, including an increasing number of Obama’s own supporters, disapprove of his handling of the economy and the country’s course heading; not when unemployment remains so high.

For the president, then, an inescapable trend of new lows and lost independents underscore his ineffectiveness and profound political vulnerability.  But among key democratic constituencies, support has fallen to a level which few could have expected.

Predictably, the White House refuses to publicly acknowledge the corrosion of base support, maintaining that its core constituencies are “mobilized behind the president.”  Democratic consultant Jamal Simmons, too, echoes much the same theme.  The Left, he says, is “unified.”  These claims willfully ignore the evidence.  Consider:

In 2008, candidate Obama carried 56% of the women’s vote.  Today, however, just 41% approve.  In the Jewish community, the president once enjoyed an 83% approval rating; it has since dropped to 54%.  Among Latino voters, just 48% now approve—a 12-point decline since January.  Obama captured two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in 2008.

It is, however, Obama’s rating amongst African-Americans that should startle Democrats.  It was not but 5 months ago that more than 8 in 10 expressed their strong support.  Now only 58% strongly approve, according to a recent Washington Post poll.  Under Obama, African-Americans have not fared well.  Black unemployment stands at 16%.

But worse for the White House, there is a definable enthusiasm deficit within their party.    According to Gallup, only 45% are excited about voting in 2012.  In 2008, nearly 80% were.  Republicans, in contrast, are far more energized.  This cannot be welcome news.  In fact, even Ed Schultz, the leftist flamethrower on MSNBC, acknowledged the electoral consequences of a despondent base.  In a “red alert” to Democrats, he warned that the party would be badly beaten unless its voters were equally motivated.  For Schultz, “sitting on the sidelines is not an option.” But for some, it seems, it is.

MoveOn, for example, a far-left organization that mobilized a surge of volunteers and votes for Democrats in 2008, now seems to have buyer’s remorse. Obama’s political decisions, lamented as not liberal enough, have compelled the group to reevaluate its stand with the president.  Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director, made plain the state of play.  Its members, he says, “are wondering how they can ever work for President Obama’s re-election, or make the case for him to their neighbors…”

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  • BLJ

    Obama can have the hard left. He has lost most of the guilty white vote as well as a good majority of the independents. Obama is a total joke not only as President but as a human being.

  • maturin20

    What about his acid problem? Don't ignore the POTUS PH.